Consent is Sexy: SISTAR, slut-shaming, and sexual objectification in the Korean idol system

SISTAR GOT CONSENT(Sources, edited: text, image)

Give it to me, SISTAR.

Slip up just once while you’re promoting your new album, and give me your honest opinion of your costumes, your choreography, or your lyrics. Tell me what input you had in them. Tell me if you ever rejected those that Starship Entertainment provided for you.

Or did you waive that right when you signed your contracts?

Because several things are going to happen in the next few weeks: some people are going to slut-shame you for the lewdness of your performances, and some people are going to raise concerns about your sexual objectification. Some people might even do both.

용감한 Producer 씨스타 SistarAnd whatever they say, the issue of your consent will be the elephant in the room.

First, because it’s both misogynistic and asinine to slut-shame you if you’re actually projecting a creation of your management company, rather than expressing your own sexuality and personality. Second, because as discussed back in April, there is both negative and positive (or benign) objectification, and the presence or absence of the consent of the person(s) involved is crucial for determining which is which:

According to Martha Nussbaum (1995; opens PDF) then: ‘In the matter of objectification context is everything. … in many if not all cases, the difference between an objectionable and a benign use of objectification will be made by the overall context of the human relationship (p. 271); ‘… objectification has features that may be either good or bad, depending upon the overall context’ (p. 251). Objectification is negative, when it takes place in a context where equality, respect and consent are absent.

(Evangelia Papadaki,”Feminist Perspectives on Objectification“; source, above)

On positive objectification, “dissident feminist” Camille Paglia is very much on point (my emphases in bold):

SISTAR BoraEarly on, I was in love with beauty. I don’t feel less because I’m in the presence of a beautiful person. I don’t go [imitates crying and dabbing tears], “Oh, I’ll never be that beautiful!” What a ridiculous attitude to take!–the Naomi Wolf attitude. When men look at sports, when they look at football, they don’t go [crying], “Oh, I’ll never be that fast, I’ll never be that strong!” When people look at Michelangelo’s David, do they commit suicide? No. See what I mean? When you see a strong person, a fast person, you go, “Wow! That is fabulous.” When you see a beautiful person: “How beautiful.” That’s what I’m bringing back to feminism. You go, “What a beautiful person, what a beautiful man, what a beautiful woman, what beautiful hair, what beautiful boobs!” Okay, now I’ll be charged with sexual harassment, probably. I won’t even be able to get out of the room!

We should not have to apologize for reveling in beauty. It is not a trick invented by nasty men in a room someplace on Madison Avenue….It is so provincial, feminism’s problem with beauty. We have got to get over this.

(Sex, Art, and American Culture: Essays by Camille Paglia {1992}, pp.264-5; source, above)

Granted, Paglia is unfairly homogenizing and stereotyping feminism, as my own favorite feminist scholar explains:

Few issues have caused more debate within feminism’s history than the sexualized representation of women….Feminist activists and scholars have long tangled with the issue of whether images liberate women from or enforce traditional patriarchal notions of female sexuality. From Laura Mulvey’s psychoanalytical constructions of the “masculine gaze” to Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon’s longstanding appeals to broaden both cultural and legal definitions of pornography, there is a wide and influential range of contemporary feminist discourse on the ways in which women are manipulated and victimized through various cultural representations. These have led to a popular stereotype of the “feminist view” (if there ever were such a monolith) of the sexualized woman as a consistently negative one. However, the history and evolution of the women’s movement problematizes this stereotype, as women have actively demanded the right to act as free and discerning sexual subjects even as they may be interpreted or serve as another’s object of desire.

(Pin-up Grrrls: Feminism, Sexuality, Popular Culture, Maria Buszek {2006}, p. 5)
Sinfest Sex Object(Source)

Be that as it may, in my experience there are precious few commentators on K-pop that heed Paglia’s imperative, let alone make any consent-based distinctions between negative and positive objectification. I’m especially frustrated with Korean commentators who, caveats about my article-searching skills aside, tend to view increasing sexual objectification — and/or sexualization — as a blanket evil, SISTAR usually only getting a mention as one, interchangeable example in a roll-call of groups at the forefront of these pernicious trends. Certainly, I’ve yet to find someone who bothered to find out if equality, respect and consent are indeed absent in your relationship with Starship Entertainment.

Then I remembered that if you want something done properly, you have to do it yourself.

So, I became your biggest fanboy, spending the last two weeks poring over all your interviews and TV appearances. Whereas I used to think that they were just mindless trash, and that you weren’t free to speak openly, I finally — belatedly — realized I could no longer simply assume either.

But ten plus hours of videos, and numerous reading later? No offense SISTAR, but now I know they’re mindless trash.

I’ve learned, for instance, that: Bora has a mole on her left ear (32:37); Hyorin met her first love when she was in her second year of high school (7:10); all of them just love Las Vagas (7:00); there is an unofficial rule that band members can secretly start going out on dates once they approach 1000 days since their debut, but as of 973 days neither Hyorin nor Bora had (15:20); Hyorin has a pet snakeSoyou prepared for Christmas, 2011 by listening to a lot of carols (1:55); Dasom‘s mother is a big fan of the host of YHY’s Sketchbook (4:35); and so mindlessly on and on…

Sistar AegyoI would have watched more, but stopped paying much attention after watching one show that had you all spitting gum at a target for five minutes. Then I quit altogether when I came across another that opened with a pig shitting, as if to taunt me. Because suddenly I realized, what on Earth was I doing? How was that pig shit really any different to the contents of all those other programs? (Source, right).

But, most of all, I was giving up out of frustration at how many interviewers and TV show hosts would waste their precious time with you by almost always asking the same sort of inane questions, with the same predictable “Awww-we-love-you-[insert city/country/name of show]-guyz” type answers.

True: I am highlighting the most inane, the most vacuous, the most trivial parts of them. This may be patronizing and unfair: after all, some people are interested in such things, I’d probably be more interested myself if they were about, say, Lee Hyori, and providing them is an integral part of creating and sustaining a fanbase. Also, the Sketchbook one is interesting in another way — albeit a negative one — for the disproportionate attention given to the handful of samchon (uncle) fans in the audience (5:50; that will have to be another post!). And I did learn one thing, albeit via the Soompi blog, rather than a video — that perhaps you’re forced to wear short skirts sometimes:

SISTAR’s Soyu recently revealed her dislike of short stage outfits.

On the June 1 episode of “Beatle’s Code: Season 2,” Soyu honestly talked about the late controversies behind the group’s outfits.

Park Han-byul short skirts high stools yoga schoolSoyu stated, “It is a little upsetting, it might be a good thing in a way. Even if we wear the same hot pants as other girl group members, when we wear them people call it racy. We think it’s because we have a healthy image so we try to think of it in a good way.”

When asked if she liked wearing short skirts/dresses, Soyu answered, “I really hate wearing short skirts/dresses. Sometimes there are rude people who take photos from below us. There are even people who touch us with their hands.”

I’d add that sometimes PR people or press conference organizers will take advantage of this, only providing high stools for female celebrities to sit on (source, above-right). But Soyu, did you mean you would wear something different given the choice? Or that you just don’t like the perving? Why, oh why, didn’t the interviewer just ask?

And that was the best I got for ten hours work. (Readers will surely understand why I’ll refrain from the addressing the post to SISTAR from this point!) But in hindsight, perhaps it was naive of me to expect anything more than frequently tantalizing — but always unsatisfying — hints, for several reasons.

The Dazed and Confused Blogger October 29th 2011First, because I’ve already discussed the problem of Korean language sources in my ongoing Who are the Korean Pin-up Grrrls? series. As always, I welcome readers’ suggestions for critical Korean commentary on K-pop; of course do know of, have read, and have translated some here; and acknowledge that my inability to find as much as I’d like doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s not more of it out there.

But frankly? As someone whose idea of a good time is to Google “성 상품화” after a couple of Black Russians, that caveat is sounding increasingly hollow and unnecessary.

Second, because for all the associations with the Korean idol and Japanese jumisho systems, as I’ll discuss in a moment, things are really little different for Western performers:

Women have always felt the pressure to look decorative or pleasing, but within pop and rock, when the star is the focus of a mass gaze, this expectation is increased tenfold. In the face of the pop orthodoxy that a woman is there first and foremost to look attractive, female artists have consistently had to negotiate the Image issue. “There’s always what we call the Cleavage Question,” said singer Suzanne Vega. “How much to show, when to show it, if at all.”

While Cleavage was the main sexual barometer of the 80s, when pop was in its infancy, with 20s vaudeville blueswomen and 40s jazz swingers, focus was on the Leg. With 50s dream babes the emphasis may have been on the Derriere, as opposed to the fetishizing of the Hair in the 60s. Whatever the focus, the acceptability of women in pop has rested on their ability to read and wear the codes, to promote whatever body part is fashionable at the time.

(She-Bop: The Definitive History of Women in Popular Music by Lucy O’Brien, 2012; pp.168-169)
Kate Bush The Kick Inside 1978(Source)

Kate Bush provides an illustrative example:

An early shot from Kate Bush’s 1978 publicity campaign has her looking full-lipped and big-eyed, wearing a clinging vest, her nipples showing through. When asked about her image at the time, Bush insisted that she didn’t feel exploited. “I suppose the poster is reasonably sexy just ’cause you can see my tits,” she continued matter-of-factly. “But I think the vibe from the face is there….Often you get pictures of females showing their legs with a very plastic face. I think that poster projects a mood….I’m going to have trouble because people tend to put the sexuality first. I hope they don’t. I want to be recognized as an artist.”

Some years later, at the time of her third or fourth album, the penny dropped. “I was very naive and I was very young,” she said of the early photo sessions which led to her being one of the most popular ‘wank’ images to grace student bedrooms. “It was all very new to me and, in the first year, I learned so many lessons about how people wanted to manipulate me.”

(p.171; see 3rd paragraph down *here* also)

(Update: I really wanted to mention — but felt that the post already had more than enough quotes —  “Selling an image: girl groups of the 1960s”  by Cynthia J. Cyrus in Popular Music, May 2003, as the similarities between Korean girl-groups of today and US and UK girl-groups of the 1960s are simply astounding. Please email me if you’d like a copy, or of any of the other journal articles mentioned here.)

Taeyeon 25 No Boyfriend NeededThird, because it’s by no means only Korean reporters and TV hosts that are restricted in what they can ask Korean stars. As John Seabrook revealed in “Factory Girls: Cultural technology and the making of K-pop” in last October’s New Yorker, for instance:

Half an hour before the Anaheim show, I was backstage, on my way to meet Tiffany and Jessica, the two members of Girls’ Generation born and brought up in the U.S., who are both in their early twenties. An S.M. man was guiding me through the labyrinth of dressing rooms, where various idols, mainly guys, were having their hair fussed over and their outfits adjusted. There was a lot of nervous bowing. My minder hustled me along, telling me what questions not to ask the Girls. “Was it sad to say goodbye to your friends who didn’t make it?” he said. “Do you have a boyfriend?” He paused. “This is all going to Korea, and it’s a little different there,” he said. “So if we could stay away from the personal questions like boyfriends.”

(Update: Gag Halfrunt provides a second example in the comments)

Nine Muses of Star Empire(Source)

Finally, because I watched Nine Muses of Star Empire (2012), an 82 minute documentary about Nine Muses’ life and training under management company Star Empire Entertainment, directed by Lee Hark-joon.

Or rather, I watched the 47 minute version that played on BBC World in mid-February (available here; it doesn’t embed well sorry), which by all accounts turned it into much more of a “journalistic exposé” than was originally intended, and certainly — deservedly — portrays Star Empire Entertainment in a very negative light. While SISTAR’s Starship Entertainment is of course a completely different company, I still probably wouldn’t even have bothered with their interviews if I’d first seen Nine Muses’ PR Manager (3:15) schooling them in exactly what to say at theirs, or their CEO (10:15) personally choosing — how empowering! — outfits that showed off their honey thighs:

Nine Muses Honey ThighsThat said, I do encourage readers to check out two interviews of the director, particularly in the latter link where he says:

Q) In the documentary the managers can be seen deciding on the girls’ outfits, songs and choreography. Do the girls have any say in their group’s concept, or is everything decided on for them?

A) The girls’ and boys’ band concept is decided by the agency. However, not all successful bands are like that. As they adjust to the music industry, they start composing their own songs and have more of a voice in their concept. In the documentary, the girls are told by managers: “If you become a star, your opinion is law. If you think you are treated unfairly, become a star.” What the manger said is cruel but it shows a reality.

Nine Muses I really did my best(Source)

Next, I insist readers check out at least Part One of — and especially the much longer comments to — W. David Marx’s series at néojapanisme on the Japanese jumisho system that the Korean idol system is based on, and which it’s clearly still very similar to. (The introductory chapter to Idols and Celebrity in Japanese Media Culture{2012} is also helpful, as is Googling “idol” and “Seoulbeats“; here’s a good starting post). Assuming that you have, then it’s an opportune moment to stop and take stock here:

  • CL GQKRIt’s difficult to find material on SISTAR specifically
  • There is great variation in different management companies’ relationships with their employees/groups/artists. Star Empire Entertainment, T-ara’s Core Contents Media, and KARA’s DSP Media would be at one end of the scale, and probably 2NE1’s YG Entertainment and The Brown Eyed Girls’ Nega Network at the other.
  • These relationships — i.e., level of groups’ freedom, autonomy, and involvement in their work — change over time, as indicated by director Lee Hark-joon above. To wit, SM Entertainment has reportedly improved in recent years, and just this week JYP announced that he no would no longer insist on having his name mentioned at the beginning of songs, and would allow his artists more freedom with composer choices
  • Not being able to ask artists tough questions doesn’t preclude us from making informed guesses about their relationships with their management companies. Moreover, unfiltered news and confessions does appear all the time, After School’s UEE admitting just last week that their CEO effectively forced them to do (painful) pole dances in their latest MV for example, and CL on the right (source; edited) mentioning back in March that she refused her company’s requests for her to get cosmetic surgery before her debut (something YG would later do a complete 180 on). Likewise, I hope SISTAR will be more  — er — revealing in the future too.

But where does all that leave the question of how to determine sexual objectification in K-pop?

Recall that in the last post, I provided some criteria on sexual objectification devised by various feminist scholars, and concluded that most purported examples in K-pop (and specifically, SISTAR’s Gone Not Around Any Longer MV and TV performances) didn’t meet those. Commenter ‘dash’ however, to whom I’m eternally grateful, pointed out that because of the levels of coercion involved in the idol system, then most likely idols did meet those criteria, even if — the main thrust of my post — sexy dancing and showing skin aren’t necessarily sexually objectifying — or rather, negatively sexually objectifying — in themselves.

To refresh readers’ memories, here are the seven specific criteria devised by Nussbaum, plus three more provided by Rae Langton:

  1. instrumentality: the treatment of a person as a tool for the objectifier’s purposes;
  2. denial of autonomy: the treatment of a person as lacking in autonomy and self-determination;
  3. inertness: the treatment of a person as lacking in agency, and perhaps also in activity;
  4. fungibility: the treatment of a person as interchangeable with other objects;
  5. violability: the treatment of a person as lacking in boundary-integrity;
  6. ownership: the treatment of a person as something that is owned by another (can be bought or sold);
  7. denial of subjectivity: the treatment of a person as something whose experiences and feelings (if any) need not be taken into account.
  8. reduction to body: the treatment of a person as identified with their body, or body parts;
  9. reduction to appearance: the treatment of a person primarily in terms of how they look, or how they appear to the senses;
  10. silencing: the treatment of a person as if they are silent, lacking the capacity to speak.

Applying academic theories to the real world is often messy and unsatisfying, but to conclude that we just don’t know if SISTAR are coerced by Starship Entertainment, so we just don’t know if #3, #7, and #10 apply, so we just don’t know if they’re negatively sexually objectified or not? It just felt galling, as if the last two weeks had been a complete waste.

It also presented quite an impasse, which took another two weeks to overcome.

Nana After School What's Next(Source)

For a while, it was tempting to leave it just at that, as you could argue that objective definitions are actually unnecessary, and/or seeking them misguided. After all, you’d think devising some for pornography would be much easier, but my (layperson’s) impression is that despite laws distinguishing between its many forms, and despite various coda used by law enforcement agencies to police, say, child porn (for example, the COPINE scale), we’re actually no closer to having objective definitions of it than when Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said in 1964 that it was hard to define the hard-core stuff, but that he knew it when he saw it (note it was later regretted and retracted however).

Perhaps, that vagueness is partially because the world’s first peer-reviewed academic journal on pornography won’t even be launched until next year?

In contrast, Buszek’s quote in the introduction is a reminder that academic work on objectification has a long pedigree, and is indeed the primary means — and likely will remain the primary means — by which we discuss “the ways in which women are manipulated and victimized through various cultural representations.” And who could doubt it the necessity of doing so, after watching the following video?

Not what it may seem, Escher Girls describes it as:

A video about the straight cis male gaze in cinema (and video games), examples of it, and talking about how even when men are sexualized on screen, it’s still as active agents and not as a collection of body parts where the camera zooms in and cuts to various secondary sex characteristics. Not a new concept, but the video is still interesting, even as just food for thought.

I also think having it deconstructed visually like he does, helps one pay a little more attention to how the world around us is constructed via the media we consume, in even small subtle ways, like where the camera focuses, pans, and zooms in on, and the difference between cuts that show pieces of the body versus full face & body shots.

….Also, this doesn’t mean it’s NEVER a thing to do, sometimes it can be used very effectively, and increases the understanding of a scene…but it’s when it becomes the norm of depicting women in all situations…

Dal Shabet Legs Objectification(Source)

So, after two weeks of banging my head against a brick wall, it finally occurred to me to Google PDF files with “sexual objectification” in the title. In just — ahem — five minutes of looking, I came across the solution in the form of “Sexual Objectification of Women: Advances to Theory and Research” in The Counseling Psychologist 39(1), 2011, pp. 6-38 by Dawn Szymanski, Lauren Moffitt, and Erika Carr, as I was immediately struck by how their five core — but very interrelated — criteria of a “sexually objectifying environment” were eerily similar to life in a management company:

A) Traditional gender roles exist

The first thing that came to mind upon reading this were the traditional gender roles perpetuated by a significant number — but by no means majority — of songs and MVs by girl-groups, buttressed by the ridiculous double-standards of Korean censors. But, while that’s certainly something worth exploring, it’s more appropriate to focus on the environment in which management company employees work in.

Especially as this is a concept originally devised for places like Hooters (pp. 21-22):

Hooters KoreaSpecific to the workplace, [one researcher] used the term gender role spillover to refer to the carryover of these traditional gender roles into work environments where they are irrelevant or inappropriate. This phenomenon is more likely to occur when gender role is more salient than work role and/or gender ratios are highly skewed, because under many circumstances, individuals use gender role stereotypes to guide behavior, especially in male-female interactions. In particular, gender role spillover occurs when women (more than men in similar occupational roles) are expected to project their sexuality through behavior, appearance, or dress. When gender role spillover occurs, the effects may be magnified when women hold jobs where one aspect is reminiscent of a sex object (i.e., cocktail waitress). In this position, women are likely to be targets of unwanted sexual attention but may (inaccurately) attribute the way they are treated to their job rather than to their gender. A dynamic is then set up where men are expected to take the role of sexual initiator. One potential outcome is a sexualized work environment where sexual remarks, seductive clothing, and sexual advances are tolerated and encouraged.

(Update: See here for more on Hooters in Korea {source, above})

B) A high probability of male contact exists (physically speaking, a male-dominated environment)

Here, the authors’ meaning is the greater numbers of men compared to women in the environment in question; lacking that data, this cannot be confirmed or denied in the case of Korean management companies. But we can guess — and this is confirmed by Nine Muses of Star Empire — that the female idols do have considerable contact with the same few men, and…

…the extent of contact with men [is] a key predictor of incidence of harassment, number of different types of harassment, sexual comments, sexual categorical remarks, and sexual materials for women. Thus, contact with men may serve as a mediator between women and sexual objectification (SO). Frequent contact with men may create a more sexualized environment, which in turn allows for more SO experiences. (pp. 22-23)

Next, consider the disproportionate power of those men:

C) Women typically hold less power than men in that environment

This can be taken as a given. But Seabrook puts it well, and the combination he describes is covered well in the comments to Part One of the jumisho series at neojaponismé:

When you replicate the American entertainment business, and add the Confucian virtue of rigid respect for elders to the traditionally unequal relationship between artists and suits, the consequences can be nasty.

I’d also add that although men can and do write, direct, and/or produce — for want of a better word — feminist songs and MVs, and that although those intended for heterosexual men can be willingly embraced by women (of all sexualities) nevertheless, the example of lyricist Kim Eana (and others) points to the common-sense conclusion that the more women in the industry, the more feminist and/or positively-objectifying songs and MVs will likely be produced.

California Beach Jewelry red(Source, right)

The final two are also self-evidently true:

D) A high degree of attention is drawn to sexual/physical attributes of women’s bodies

Environments where women are required, often by specifications of a uniform, to reveal and emphasize their bodies are clearly sexually objectifying. Additionally, wearing tight or revealing clothing may facilitate self-objectification, as women constantly review their appearance and the fit of their clothing in the surrounding mirrors. Supporting this notion, [one study] found that women in fitness centers who wore tight and fitted exercise clothing (gym tops and gym pants) placed greater emphasis on their appearance attributes and engaged in more habitual body monitoring than women who wore looser clothing (T-shirts and sweatpants). Relatedly, [other researchers] found that the attention focused on women’s bodies in fitness centers leads women to self-objectify more. (p. 23)

E) The approval and acknowledgement of male gaze

세상을 바꾸는 퀴즈 현아…girl watching is a “targeted tactic of power” where men use gaze to demonstrate their right to physically and sexually evaluate women. The activity serves as a form of playing a game among some men; however, the targeted woman is generally understood to be an object, rather than a player, in the game. Thus, from a male point of view, “acts such as girl watching are simply games played with objects: women’s bodies”. The effects of male gaze on women may be intensified by the accompaniment of sexually evaluative commentary. (p. 24; source, right)

And with that, I could finally conclude my month-long inquiry. Which in short, is that I now more or less agree with dash(!), the commenter that started me on it. Or in full, that:

  • Given everything we know about the idol system, it is fair to assume that management companies are sexually objectifying environments
  • Consequently, it fair to assume that female performers do not always consent to the sexual objectification asked of them
  • Consequently, it is negative sexual objectification
  • And crucially, if the management companies and/or performers feel that these assumptions are incorrect and unfair, that the onus is on them to prove us feminist whiners wrong

As many do

Ga-in Bloom(Source, above; below)

Yes, you can argue that that’s a lot of assumptions. And/or that, because the first set ivory tower criteria from the last post didn’t work in the real world, that I’ve merely gone and replaced them with another. Both criticisms are fair. Also, I acknowledge the very very broad range of topics above, and am aware of the many exceptions, over-generalizations, and just plain simple mistakes involved in covering them all. I welcome and appreciate readers pointing them out to me, and look forward to discussing them in the comments.

SISTAR give it to me pleaseYet most of all, I’m happy that I now longer feel so stymied, so…inadequate when talking about objectification in K-pop because I feel I won’t ever been able to hear enough about it — or indeed, anything about it — from the singers themselves.

Of course, the drudgery of religiously scanning news reports and interviews for their voices — i.e. to make assumptions into facts —  is still essential, and, having recognized that, motivated fanboying is something I definitely plan to continue doing in the future. But spending hours toiling over, say, all 114 pages of the SISTAR tag on allkrap allkpop for those slip-ups before you can feel you can even write? Really, us feminist whiners can do much better than that.

And SISTAR, so can you too. Give it to me indeed.

You know what I mean!

Update: The dynamics of guest-host interactions on Korean talk-shows are a little more subtle than I gave them credit for in this post. See “Goo Hara is Allegedly Rude because ‘MCs Gotta MC’” at Seoulbeats to learn more.

p.s. Like this post? Did it keep you occupied for half an hour? Please consider making a small donation, to help me write more of them — I’ve only had one two so far this year! ㅠㅠ

SISTAR19: Begone, Calling Them “Objectified” Any Longer

Sistar19 Gone Not Around Any Longer(“Victims? Nous?” Source)

Misuse feminist rhetoric, and it’s easy to come across as a prude.

The author of this music column, for instance, laments that SISTAR19 are mere victims, forced to objectify themselves by their management agency. But he never provides any evidence of that coercion, nor elaborates on how members Hyorin and Bora “cross a line” with their sexy dances and tight clothes exactly. By the end of his column, he comes across as a borderline slut-shamer.

Had he not also divulged that, “as a man,” he still likes the results, it would be easy to conclude that they really just made him uncomfortable somehow, his claims of objectification a mere rationalization.

As feminists are accused of all the time, regardless of their sex or sexual orientation.

Still, surely we’ve all been guilty of being too liberal with the ‘O’ word on occasion, and/or lost sight of the fact that it’s actually just as complicated as any ‘ism.’ To make sure everyone is on the same page in future discussions, it would be useful to have a list of its various forms to refer to.

After the translation of the column, I’ll provide two: the Sex Object Test (SOT) devised by Caroline Heldman at Sociological Images, then Evangelia Papadaki’s “Feminist Perspectives on Objectification” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2002). As quickly becomes apparent from them, you may well call SISTAR19’s sexy costumes and choreography crude and unoriginal, but objectifying? They don’t register on those criteria at all. And, by extension, neither does a lot of K-pop.


[HStereo의 음악칼럼]씨스타19 있다 없으니까를 통해 본 여자 아이돌의 성 상품화(19금) / [HStereo’s Music Column] Female Idols are Objectified through SISTAR19’s Gone Not Around Any Longer

HStereo Planet, 8 February 2013

확실히 통했다. 씨스타19의 이번 있다 없으니까는 요즘 가장 인기있는 노래이고 공중파에서 1위를 차지하며 씨스타의 인기를 유닛그룹인 씨스타19(효린,보라)로도 계속해서 이어나가고 있다. 안타까운 것은, 씨스타 19를 통해 돌아본 대한민국 여자 아이돌 문화가 가면 갈수록 너무 성 상품화 되고 있는것이 아닌가하는 우려가 생기며 이번 칼럼을 쓰게 됬다. 그리고 이번 칼럼은 섹시컨셉의 글을 건드리는 부분인 만큼 19금으로 가게 될것이다. 사실, 필자도 남자인지라 이번 씨스타19, 너무 좋다. SNL의 이엉돈PD가 씨스타19를 본다면 “저도 참 좋아하는데요, 제가 한번..” 하는 섹드립을 치게 될법한 무대이다. 그만큼 섹시하다. 근데 진짜 솔직히 이 정도 선에서 섹시는 끝나야 한다. 사람들은 시간이 지날수록 더 자극적인걸 원하고 더 야한걸 원하게 된다. 어찌보면 이 시작은 섹시 아이돌이라고 하는 컨셉으로 나오는 여자 가수들의 공통적인 특징이고 “내가 더 야해” 라고 말하고 있는것같은 느낌까지 받게 된다.

It definitely worked: SISTAR19’s song Gone Not Around Any Longer is the most popular song these days, getting a number 1 ranking on the main public broadcast channels. This is having a knock-on effect on SISTAR’s own popularity. This is worrying — SISTAR19 has gotten me thinking about how, as time goes by, Korean female idol culture is becoming too full of sexual objectification.

Since this column is about sexual concepts, it is adults-only. And, because the writer is a man, he likes SISTAR19! Indeed, if Lee Yeong-don, the Production Director of SNL Korea saw them, he would make a sexual joke like “Oh, I really like them too. Can I just one time…” — they’re that sexy. [But] if I speak really honestly, they [still] cross a line.

As time goes by, people want to see more stimulating and revealing things. I get the feeling that, perhaps, this sexy idol concept is the start of female singers all having the common trait of announcing “I am more sexual and revealing [than other female singers].”

(씨스타19의 새앨범 타이틀곡 “있다 없으니까”의 MBC 음악중심 무대영상. 뮤직비디오보다 확실히 무대를 보는게 더 섹시를 강조했다. 특히 투명의자에서 추는 “착시댄스”는 보자마자 놀랠정도로 야했다)

(Caption: A video of SISTAR19 performing their new title song Gone Not Around Any Longer on MBC’s [February 2nd] “Music Core” show. It is much more sexual than the song’s actual music video. In particular, it was their ‘Illusion Dance’ performed on a transparent, perspex bench that immediately showed me how lewd it was.)

James: Here is the — choreography and costumes-wise — virtually identical music video:

물론 이들이 잘못했다는 건 아니다. 남자관점에서 보면 이렇게 섹시아이돌이 나와주는건 고마운(?) 일이다. 다만, 앞서 말했듯이 이제는 어느정도의 수위조절이 필요한것은 아닐까? 하는 생각이 들었다. 씨스타19의 효린같은 경우에는 이미 가창력으로도 인정을 받았어서 필자 개인적으로는 이들이 진정으로 “음악성”으로 승부해도 충분한 아이돌이 될텐데, 왜 자꾸 소속사에서는 옷을 못벗겨 안달이 난것마냥 상품화를 시켜버렸다는것이 좀 안타깝게 작용된다.

Of course, I’m not saying that they did anything wrong. From men’s perspective, we’re grateful for the sexy idols. However, as I said before, this level of exposure needs adjusting [reduced]. This is what I think: SISTAR19’s Hyorin has already been acknowledged for her singing ability; if it came to a contest over true musical talent, SISTAR19 would hold their own. Why then, is their agency so eager to make them constantly take their clothes off? I feel bad that they’re sexually-objectified like this.

(최근 논란이 된 소주브랜드 “처음처럼”의 19금 광고영상. 씨스타의 효린, 포미닛의 현아, 카라의 구하라, 이렇게 3명이 광고모델이 됬다. 논란이 된것은, 유튜브를 이용하여 소셜마케팅을 사용했는데, 조회수 공약으로 높아질수록 광고가 더 야해지는 기발한 S코드의 광고를 찍었다. 이를 보며 수많은 사람들은 여자 아이돌을 “벗기기”를 원하고 있고, 이에 계속 여성의 성 상품화가 적당선에서 계속 흔들거리며 위험수위에 오르지 않을까라는 생각이 들었다.)

(Caption: The controversial R18 commercial for the soju brand Like the First Time; SISTAR’s Hyorin, 4Minute’s Hyuna, and KARA’s Gu Hara are the models. The controversy comes from using the ‘Extraordinary S Code’ social marketing strategy of promising an even more revealing commercial the more hits gained on YouTube. Seeing this, many viewers call for female idols to wear less; if this continues, I fear the sexual objectification of women will overstep a line.)

반면, 현재 아이돌에서 가장 성 상품화 되있는 여자 가수는 누굴까? 누가 뭐래도 바로 현아라고 생각한다. 여자에겐 수치일수도, 자부심일수도 있지만, 그녀는 “패왕색기”라는 별명까지 붙어가며 섹시로 밀고 나가게 되었다. 사실 이는, 대중들이 만들어낸 문화적 코드이다. 안타까운건 아직 나이도 어린 그녀가 너무 “섹시”로만 밀고 나가며 정작 실력있는 뮤지션으로 인정받기가 힘들어질것 같다는 생각이 들었다. 사람이 한번 정해진 이미지는 쉽게 바꾸기 힘들기 때문이다.

Hyuna Ice CreamWho is the most sexually objectified female singer these days? I’d wager most people would answer Hyuna. To [most] women, such a label could be seen as something shameful, or alternatively as a sign of arrogance. But to someone with the nickname of ‘The One and Only Supreme Queen’ however, this only further promotes her sexual image.

On the other hand, this is just the role the public has designated for her. Yet she is still quite young for it. I worry that if she continues to be labelled and promoted this way, she will never be acknowledged as a musician. It is difficult to change one’s image once it has been set in the public imagination.

(여자 아이돌중에 가장 상품화가 많이 된 아이돌은 단연 현아다. 사실 강남스타일에서 같이 나온 덕분에 외국에 많이 알려진 것도 있고 美빌보드 지에서는 현아를 전 세계 섹시한 여자아이돌 17위에 랭크시키며 세계시장 진출에 큰 가능성이 있는 아이돌이라고 극찬을 하였다.)

(Caption, right: Among female idols, the most sexually-objectified one is of course Hyuna. Thanks to Gangnam Style, she has received a lot of attention and praise overseas, ranking 17th in a list of “Sexist Female Idols” in the U.S. Billboard magazine. She now has a lot of potential to make it big internationally.)

헌데 세계적인 문화 코드로 봐서, 섹시컨셉은 결코 야하고 음란한것이 아닌, 대중문화의 한 큰 틀이 되었다. 그렇기에 빌보드에서도 현아를 세계적인 섹시 여가수 17위에 랭크시킨것은 아닐까? 넓게 보자니 세계문화속에 한국 아이돌이 어우러져 좋을수도 있지만 좁게 보자니 시간이 지날수록 도를 심하게 넘을까 우려되는 것도 어쩔수 없는 현상인듯 하다.

By the way, looking at the world cultural code, a sexy concept is [now] never a too risqué or lewd thing, but a fundamental part of popular culture. Isn’t that why Hyuna was [noticed] by Billboard magazine? Looking at the big picture, it is wonderful that Korean idols are integrating so harmoniously into world culture. But looking more narrowly, as time goes by I am also more and more worried by this phenomenon.

Rainbow japan galbo

(한류로 인해 수많은 가수들이 일본이나 동남아, 미국으로 진출하고 있다. 그 예로 일본에서 최근 성황리에 활동중인 레인보우. 메이지식품의 “갈보” 초코렛의 광고 모델이 되었는데. 갈보가 일본어로는 “가루보”라고 발음이 되는데, 그게 중요한것이 아니라 왜 하필 한국에서는 정말 입에 담기 힘든 속어인 “갈보”초코렛의 모델이 왜 하필 또 한국 아이돌가수냐는 뜻이다. 그전에, 이들은 이 뜻을 알고는 찍은걸까?)

(Caption: Through Hallyu, many singers are being promoted in Japan, Southeast Asia, and the United States. Take Rainbow for example. Recently successful in Japan, they have become endorsers for Meiji Seika’s  “Galbo” chocolate. Whereas in Japanese, it is pronounced “ga-roo-bo,” in Korean “galbo” is a slang word that I can not bring myself to say. Why on Earth are Korean idols endorsing this product? Didn’t they know beforehand?)

한류를 통해 수많은 가수들이 세계로 진출하고 있다. 위의 레인보우 예시처럼, 스스로를 저렇게 “갈보”라고 외칠수 있게 하는 이 대중문화 시장이 이상하게 여기는건 기분탓일수도 있지만, 엄연히 한국의 아이돌이고 갈보라는 뜻은 한국어로는 심하게 안좋은 뜻이다. (뜻을 모르는 사람들을 위해 대놓고 말해서 “걸레창녀”라고 이해하면 된다) 그런 뜻을 알고 이들은 광고를 찍은걸지도 의심되며 기획사 측에서는 파장이 커진다면 어떻게 될지도 생각을 해볼 문제로 판단된다. 문화적 코드로 자리잡은 “한류”에 스스로 먹칠을 가하게 되는 사건이 아닐지, 우려가 되기도 했다. 특히나 레인보우 같은 경우에도 “섹시컨셉”을 밀고 나가는 아이돌가수 아닌가? 이 광고가 과연 19금일까?

Through Hallyu, many singers are promoting themselves overseas. With the above example of Rainbow, it could just be my personal feelings that make me think it strange that the popular culture market makes them yell “galbo” at each other. But they are distinctively Korean idols, and that means something very bad in Korean (for those of you that don’t know, it means “hooker”). Actually, I suspect that they did do, and their agency will view this a problem if news about it spreads further. I also worry that, through such disgrace, they will ruin the established cultural code [image] of Hallyu. Especially in the case of Rainbow, who heavily promote their sexy concept. Is this ad ultimately R18?

SISTAR19 Gone Not Around Any Longer

(가장 요즘 핫한 댄스인 “착시댄스” 이보다 선을 넘는다면 아이돌에게는 이제 기회보단 위기로 다가올수도 있다)

(Caption: The hottest dance at the moment is this “illusion dance.”  But if they cross the line any more, it will become more of a crisis for them than an opportunity [to get noticed])

한류가 계속해서 이어나가고 여자 아이돌 가수가 세계적 진출을 하기 위해선, 섹시컨셉을 버리라는 말은 절대 못하겠다. 허나, 어느정도 선을 유지시켜야 하는것이 맞다고 판단된다. 섹시의 기준을 넘어 싸보이게 가면 안된다는 뜻을 비추는 것이기 때문이다. 좀 심한말로, 섹스를 못해서 안달이 나게 보이면 그건 문제가 있다고 보기 때문이다. 기획사측에게 바라는 것 하나는, 적당한 선의 섹시컨셉과 실력으로 승부할수 있는 아이돌들을 발굴하고 만들어내주길 바랄뿐이다.

In order for Hallyu to continue, and to promote female idols and singers overseas, I can’t bring myself to say they should stop using sexy concepts. But I do think there should be limits: [because] if they overdo it, it emphasizes how cheap that can look. Speaking very harshly, I think it’s a problem if they look too sexually available. One thing I expect from agencies, is that they scout for people who can compete more on ability than on sexual appeal (end).


Whatever our opinion of the author, simply shouting “objectification” doesn’t settle an argument. Instead, he could have used the SOT from Sociological Images, which provides the following suggested criteria to check for (technically only for images, but clearly also applicable to music videos and performances):

1) Does the image show only part(s) of a sexualized person’s body?

2) Does the image present a sexualized person as a stand-in for an object?

3) Does the image show a sexualized person as interchangeable?

4) Does the image affirm the idea of violating the bodily integrity of a sexualized person that can’t consent?

5) Does the image suggest that sexual availability is the defining characteristic of the person?

6) Does the image show a sexualized person as a commodity (something that can be bought and sold)?

7) Does the image treat a sexualized person’s body as a canvas?

For examples and further discussions of each, see the original post, and I highly recommend also reading Parts 2, 3, and 4 on the harm caused by objectification, and the daily rituals to stop and start doing to avoid that respectively. Like Gender Advertisements by Erving Goffman (1979), it’s one of those rare pieces that immediately changes your view of the world.

In my case, by allowing me to put my finger on how this Makgeollu ad objectifies Kang So-ra for instance, seen — I kid you not — less then 5 minutes after reading the SOT posts in my local Starbucks. It’s #5, by suggesting that sexual availability is her defining characteristic:

Kang So-ra Ad Objectification through reduction to sexual availability(Source, right)

Yet however eye-opening, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that the SOT ultimately only provides a short, really quite superficial introduction to the subject, commenters at Sociological Images questioning categories 3 and 7 in particular. In that vein, despite now further appreciating (via Part 2) that objectification as a whole is harmful, I’m yet to be convinced that this particular example is so, either for her or for viewers.

Instead, also knowing that the missionary position is the most commonly used sex position for heterosexual couples, and that women look sexually attractive lying on beds as a result (heightened here by the virginal white), then I see a simple case of sex being used to sell.

It would be excruciatingly inane not to expect that in ads.

On the other hand, it is hardly original. Or, through overuse, particularly effective either. And indeed, it is precisely these sorts of complaints about Gone Not Around Any Longer that have the most validity, not hollow, dogmatic rhetoric about victimization and objectification (although perhaps the masked background dancers do partially qualify under #3?).

SISTAR Ma Boy Body Wave GIFAs explained by Nicholas in his review of the song at Seoulbeats for instance (source, right):

The rest of the music video tended to play out like SISTAR videos past: cube-like neon-lighted sets, with army of back-up dancers (a duo group often equates to a lot of empty space) and emotive posturing next to random objects.

There’s also the SISTAR staple of sexy body waves. While the moves do appear overdone after a while, I’m going to stop ranting about them. After all, this brand of synthesised sexy has become very much a part of their identity. And maybe because of its frequent presences, I’ve become desensitised. As much as I’m numb to this, something must be said about the incongruence of a body wave in a song that talks of pining and loss. No?

As far as I know, that body wave (originally by Beyoncé) was first seen in K-pop in their Ma Boy video, released in April 2011. By the next year, that and ‘booty circles’ had become “two staple moves in the SISTAR arsenal”:

Fany Pack echoes Nicholas in finding it overused however:

It might just be because I don’t have a penis, but I’m getting a little bored with presenting Sistar members as just boobs and ass. I realize they have some of the best bods in kpop (esp. Bora and Hyorin), but come on. Can’t the girls do anything other than stand there and touch themselves? Give them something new to do. I don’t even care if they’re still touching themselves but, like, fighting crime in an action-y video. Or touching themselves while exploring new galaxies in some futuristic, space video. This latest song offers an MV with basically no plot, though.

Before the inevitable “But that’s what ‘Ma Boy’ was like. Why don’t you complain about that song?” response, I know “Ma Boy” had a video about sexy ladies being sexy with no plot. That song was better, though, and didn’t copy the main group’s latest hit so much.

As does Dainty at 2 Scoops of Asia:

The dance (If you can even call it a dance) was a very lazy dance. The choreographer this time around really ran out of ideas so he just threw a bunch of slow movements together to match the tempo. And when that failed, he recycled some old Sistar dances. Shame. Shame. The reason people loved Ma Boy was its odd blend of Cute and Sexy, the fun dance and the catchy song. They had over a year to come back with an equally great concept or better and failed. The editor couldn’t even do his job and edit out Bora’s wardorbe malfunction. I guess they thought if they gave us an overload of sexy, we wouldn’t catch the sloppy editing. This whole video just screams rushed.

Nevertheless, I love the song. The lyrics of the song are very powerful, and the melody is nice….

Finally, it behooves me to mention Dialectofmyown’s take on their above commercial too:

Sistar are the stars of a new Pelicana commercial advertising for chicken and LO AND BEHOLD, that choreographer for Sistar (whoever they are) went and choreo-ed something creative and completely out of the box: body waves. I know a huge shocker, I can’t think of a single other music video in which the majority of Sistar’s dance is composed of body waves and hip rolls and that’s all, well except for all of the music videos they are known for minus Shady Girl….

Without disputing those opinions, it should also be noted that the body waves and hip roles are ultimately no different to any other group’s overused signature move(s), of which there are many (and, seeing as we’re on the subject, here’s an analysis of Rihanna’s “five unique crotch-grabbing techniques” that just appeared in my Twitter feed). Moreover, their admittedly many wardrobe malfunctions aside, I can’t help but wonder if it’s really the double-standards surrounding (asexual) legs and (slutty) large cleavage that are one reason why Hyorin, for one, gets singled out for “sex-instrument talk [and/or] whore-bashing” by netizens “as soon as SISTAR puts out another music video.” Whereas Girls’ Generation, whose legs are so objectified (#1) that they’ve influenced fashion all over Asia, and spawned a medical tourism boom, don’t seem to attract quite the same opprobrium.

Girls' Generation's Legs(Source)

In addition, Sophie of J-Popping fame, writing at Selective Hearing, doesn’t think the choreography is as superfluous as it may seem, placing the music video on the same continuum as Ga-in’s Bloom. I think that’s overdrawn myself, but then I think Bloom is one of the most (sexually) radical K-pop songs of the last decade too, so I’m surely the last person that can accuse someone of reading too much into a music video:

I feel guilty for not saying more about the hyper-sexualization in the video. Certainly, it’s heavily influenced by Ga-in’s ”Bloom: from October 2012, and features sensual depictions of the duo’s sexual desire. There are blindfolded women, the striking contrast of black and white, and a sultry watery motif (It’s a metaphor! For renewal! or…sad!).

Ga-in’s video sparked a debate about whether or not it is empowering for women to be intimately expressing their desires. As “Bloom” was released almost contemporaneously with Hyuna’s “Ice Cream,” participants had to defend their point of view in lieu of a radically different but equally carnal expression of sexuality….

….In particular, the dance [in SISTAR19’s video] is captivatingly visceral. It’s clear from the precision that it’s been highly choreographed, but it’s executed with such emotion that it feels motivated from a place of real emotion. The live performance and dance practice videos have fewer distractions, and I highly recommend viewing them as well.

Debbie Harry Sex ObjectBut we were talking about objectification. So, here are the criteria provided by Evangelia Papadaki in her essay “Feminist Perspectives on Objectification,” available online here:

Objectification is a notion central to feminist theory. It can be roughly defined as the seeing and/or treating a person, usually a woman, as an object. In this entry, the focus is primarily on sexual objectification, objectification occurring in the sexual realm. Martha Nussbaum (1995, p.257; opens PDF) has identified seven features that are involved in the idea of treating a person as an object (source, above-right):

  1. instrumentality: the treatment of a person as a tool for the objectifier’s purposes;
  2. denial of autonomy: the treatment of a person as lacking in autonomy and self-determination;
  3. inertness: the treatment of a person as lacking in agency, and perhaps also in activity;
  4. fungibility: the treatment of a person as interchangeable with other objects;
  5. violability: the treatment of a person as lacking in boundary-integrity;
  6. ownership: the treatment of a person as something that is owned by another (can be bought or sold);
  7. denial of subjectivity: the treatment of a person as something whose experiences and feelings (if any) need not be taken into account.

Rae Langton (2009, pp.228–229; unavailable to view online, but here is a related essay) has added three more features to Nussbaum’s list:

  1. reduction to body: the treatment of a person as identified with their body, or body parts;
  2. reduction to appearance: the treatment of a person primarily in terms of how they look, or how they appear to the senses;
  3. silencing: the treatment of a person as if they are silent, lacking the capacity to speak.
Immanuel Kant ponders objectification in K-pop(Sources, edited: left, right)

Papadaki’s essay is quite thorough and academic, so I’ll wisely leave discussion of it to interested readers in the comments But, to get that discussion started, I’d be grateful for your thoughts on a) if and/or how any of these new criteria apply to SISTAR19, and b) two final observations:

— No matter how trendy it may be to dismiss them these days, I don’t think the works of centuries-dead white guys have absolutely nothing to teach us about modern society. But still, I really do wonder why “Immanuel Kant’s (1724-1804) views on sexual objectification have been particularly influential for contemporary feminist discussions on this topic” especially as, in Papadaki’s words, he ultimately believed that “The only relationship in which two people can exercise their sexuality without the fear of reducing themselves to objects is monogamous marriage,” let alone is someone who wrote well before the development of photography and mass media (italics in original).

— I’m much more persuaded by Nussbaum’s work, especially by the following (my emphasis in bold):

According to Nussbaum, then: ‘In the matter of objectification context is everything. … in many if not all cases, the difference between an objectionable and a benign use of objectification will be made by the overall context of the human relationship (Nussbaum 1995, 271); ‘… objectification has features that may be either good or bad, depending upon the overall context’ (Nussbaum 1995, 251). Objectification is negative, when it takes place in a context where equality, respect and consent are absent. (Among the negative objectification cases she discusses in her article are Hankinson’s Isabelle and Veronique, the magazine Playboy, and James’s The Golden Bowl). And it is benign/positive, when it is compatible with equality, respect and consent. Nussbaum gives an example of benign objectification: ‘If I am lying around with my lover on the bed, and use his stomach as a pillow there seems to be nothing at all baneful about this, provided that I do so with his consent (or, if he is asleep, with a reasonable belief that he would not mind), and without causing him pain, provided as well, that I do so in the context of a relationship in which he is generally treated as more than a pillow’ (Nussbaum 1995, 265).

Which not only has a lot of relevance to K-Pop’s “Factory Girls” system (and Japan’s “Jimusho” one), but also happens to be a central theme of my Who are the Korean Pin-up Grrrls? series!

Thoughts? Rants? Raves?

(Update: See here for a follow-up post)